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Symposium explores science's ‘sweet spot'

July 17, 2006

The Biodesign Institute at ASU played host to a two-day gathering of international experts focused on a burgeoning branch of science that attempts to understand how sugars in the body – called glycans – contribute to human health and life.

“Until recently, DNA and proteins were thought to contain all of the information necessary to define the complexity of life,” says Lokesh Joshi, director of the Institute's Center for Glycosciences and Technology and an associate professor of bioengineering. “There is now a paradigm shift occurring where carbohydrate complexity is accepted as the third language of biology and chemistry, and scientists now want to understand this sugar code of life.”

Joshi says glycobiology is a complex field with a relatively small number of experts, and this served as his impetus in playing host to the “Interdisciplinary Translational Glycobiology Symposium.” The event brought 16 leading research groups from around the world together to discuss new innovations, discoveries and directions in the emergent field.

To understand the complexity of what is sometimes called “sweet biology,” consider that every cell in the body is covered with a dense layer of carbohydrates. These sugars help cells maintain their shape and identity, communicate and attach to each other, and respond to physiological alterations.

In addition, up to 70 percent of all proteins made in the human body are decorated with sugars. These decorations are not just ornamental, but have vital functions in the brain, vascular system and immune system.

Glycobiology also plays a key role in clinical intervention, and drug discovery and development, and an estimated annual $16 billion therapeutic protein drug market.

To make rapid strides in glycobiology, scientists from diverse disciplines have joined forces. For example, in Joshi's center, immunologists often work side by side with cell biologists, protein engineers, bioengineers and plant scientists during their research endeavors.

“Glycosciences is the poster child for interdisciplinary science,” says professor Robert Woods of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center at University of Georgia.

In addition to Woods, whose research focus studies the three-dimensional shapes of glycoprotein structures, other glycoscience leaders present at the symposium were Ajit Varki, Roland Schauer, Hudson Freeze, Hans-Joachim Gabius and James Paulson.